From my thorough research of cults (translation: after listening to every episode of The Last Podcast on the Left), I know that their leaders are often afflicted with any combination of mental health conditions including narcissism. Certainly not everyone with these conditions is trying to break from reality in their everyday lives, but the stories of these extreme cases make for really good podcast episodes and television. American Horror Story: Cult has tapped into the warped ambition of cult leaders and infused it with political undertones to keep it fresh. But despite exploring mental health issues, the show’s take on care for those who may need help doesn’t feel nearly as poignant.
Tuesday night’s episode saw the release of Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson) from a psychiatric ward. She has been held there for weeks as a person of interest in a mass shooting. It was clear to authorities that Ally wasn’t involved. But her therapist, Dr. Vincent (Cheyenne Jackson), supported her confinement after witnessing the intensity of her evolving phobias. Ally never hurt or threatened to hurt anyone. She was anxious and easily triggered by her fear of clowns, holes, and germs, but this was never a danger to the people around her. The entire season built up to the moment where Ally would end up in a mental facility, a place she resisted.
And she isn’t the first character to have spent time there. Beverly Hope (Adina Porter) became an easy recruit for Kai Anderson’s (Evan Peters) cult after he discovered how her anger got her committed. Tired of being interrupted by hecklers during her newscasts, she attacked one of the young pranksters with her microphone. Not wanting to sacrifice its diversity quota, the network offered to let her keep her job after she paid a visit to the psychiatric hospital.
In AHS: Cult, psychiatric hospitals are time outs from your life, and your therapist is more of a vigilante than anything else. There has been a serious lack of actual treatment options for those characters. Beverly is still just as short-tempered. Ally appears to be cured of her phobias because she’s confronted them all. Now, she’s headed down a darker path as the newest member of Kai’s murderous cult. Dr. Vincent’s professional skills are no use to his younger brother Kai, who is still on a rampage to pervert the world order. In AHS: Cult, mental health facilities are essentially used as prisons.
O.g. fans of the show know that this isn’t the first time an AHS mental health institution hasn’t lived up to its mission. The second season of the anthology series was subtitled Asylum, as it took place in a filthy institution that did more harm than good. Patients with both mental and physical impairments were subject to torture, murder, and the tyrannical rule of its head nun. Rehabilitation and healing were pretty non-existent themes. The goal was to keep these patients locked up and out of sight of the general public.
All of this makes me wonder if the problem isn’t with American Horror Story, but with our societal outlook on mental health care. Part of the reason these storylines don’t work for me is because they simply aren’t realistic. Beverly would have been arrested and imprisoned in an actual jail had she attacked a white kid on air. Kai’s involvement in the cult would have landed him in a solitary jail cell, just like Charles Manson is now. And it’s likely that police would have sent Ally to a psychiatric facility before Dr. Vincent has a chance to intervene. Too often the lines between enforcing the law and treating the sick are blurred. The citizens of Ryan Murphy’s fictional Michigan town undoubtedly need both, but it’s worth trying to get right.